What is feminism?
Feminism is a socio-political movement and ideology that, at its roots, advocates for equality between men and women. Former first lady, Abigail Adams, believed that education, property, and voting were rights that women were entitled to. At the same time, the abolitionist movement was running a strong course — many of the female leaders who were calling for an end to slavery did not agree with fighting for African American rights when they themselves could not enjoy these same rights.
Western Feminism, as we know it, began in the mid-19th century at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, with approximately 300 men and women coming together to declare equal rights for women. As a woman’s place was believed to be solely in the home and taking care of the family, this “first-wave feminism” opposed that idea and sought to achieve voting, education and other legal rights for women.
The more recent third wave of feminism, starting out in the 1990’s, brought about many new advancements within the movement and in feminist theory, including the call for a more intersectional way of approaching feminism. Coined in 1989 by American law professor and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, she explains intersectional feminism as “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other”. It is an understanding of how the different identities of a person (their race, sex, gender, class, etc.) can impact their lives, and how they experience different forms of oppression within their society.
As we strive toward a more equitable and just society, and with the rise of the internet and social media, social activism is becoming more accessible to the average person in the West. In the age of information, and with the prevalence of misinformation, it is important that we have people to look up to, who can guide and help us navigate the different theories and ideas within this movement. Since the start of the feminist movement in the 19th century, there are many feminist icons whose lives and works still remain an integral part of the conversations surrounding feminism — some notable feminists include Maya Angelou, Simone de Beauvoir, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
What is a feminist icon?
To be a feminist icon is to be someone who inspires, educates and leads within the realm of feminist spaces. These are people, often scholars and activists, who have done the work in educating themselves, whether through scholarship, lived experiences, or both, and have taken on the task of educating others. They work towards making changes within different areas of their own society and communities — whether that be through legal reform, policy changes, or creating programs to help marginalized people gain access to various necessities, like quality education and housing, that they otherwise might not have been able to gain access to.
It is important to have feminist role models, as they provide foundations for feminist thought, which later feminists can use to build off. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, is a French feminist philosopher and activist who is most famous for the book she wrote in 1949 titled The Second Sex. It discusses the treatment of women throughout history, and is credited for first articulating the idea of a sex-gender distinction. De Beauvoir and her works have since been used by many feminist scholars to further develop ideas of sex and gender within feminist movements and scholarship.
Another example is American activist Tarana Burke, who pioneered the #MeToo movement which, having first been used in 2006, eventually went viral ten years later, in 2017. The #MeToo movement has helped raise awareness, and open up many conversations across the world, about the prevalence of sexual violence faced by many women, with men soon joining the conversation with their own experiences. Since its spread, the #MeToo movement has become a global phenomenon, being used by millions of people around the world and has inspired variations of the hashtag in many other languages, including Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. Thanks to this movement, it has become more accessible for victims of sexual assault to receive support, as it has sparked not only conversation, but inspired change in multiple areas of society, including changes in policy and in the workplace.
Having these feminist icons to look up to is also important for people who want to get involved in feminist spaces but do not know how to, or do not have the proper resources. People like Laverne Cox, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Malala Yousafzai are inspirations for many people within their respective areas of focus. They have each faced hardships along their journeys to become the great women they are today. Their perseverance has inspired many people, especially women and the LGBTQ+ community, empowering them to fight and carve out their own paths to success, despite systemic barriers that have been in place from time immemorial.
Being a feminist icon is a great responsibility, and could be both challenging and rewarding. Though they have faced many challenges and criticisms within their careers, many feminist icons have also inspired many people and movements all around the globe, bringing about positive changes within policies, and daily life for many. Though there is still much work to be done, feminist icons over the year have laid, and continue to create, an important foundation to be used and built upon in the advancement of feminist ideology and the movements. It is through their hard and courageous work, and their guidance, that we can all - men and women - expect to reach our eventual goal of an equitable society.